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A Critical Examination of Bullshit

“Oh, yeah, the Campaign was a HUGE success! We absolutely killed it!”

“We’re the richest country on Earth”

“I have the best boyfriend in the world”

Today, I want to go through a critical examination of Bullshit (“BS”). To do that, I need to cover the following topics:

  • What is BS?
  • Who engages in BS?
  • Why do we engage in BS?
  • How to go through your own BS.
  • What is the most useful way to think about BS?

Examining A Complete Load Of BS

Here’s how I define BS:

a deliberately incomplete story intended to produce a desired effect.

BS is like looking through the lens of a camera, you get to choose what to point it at, and what is in focus.

Some of us do this unconsciously, some more deliberately.

Some do this in a way that is mostly harmless, and at the other end there are those who go beyond embellishment to craft a story that bears little resemblance to the truth in an attempt to accomplish nefarious results through manipulation.

In all of these cases, BS is a sleight of hand, a trick…an illusion.

It allows us to side step the full, unvarnished truth while embellishing the parts of the story we want to tell. It is effective because humans have unconscious biases toward quality, expertise, and confidence and are therefore attracted to those who present these attributes rather than those who don’t.

We often talk about BS like it’s some unique behavior that is separate and divorced from our everyday experiences. We use it almost exclusively in the pejorative, as if it’s reserved for when someone is trying to manipulate another person rather than something that is happening constantly, often unconsciously.

BS is not some anomaly. It’s not the exclusive domain of the unscrupulous or unethical.

We all do it. All of us.

This BS Arms Race

We all traffic in BS to some extent because it can be our best weapon and our best defense in the war for attention or resources.

  • When we need to close the sale, or nail the job interview so that we’re chosen, what do we do? In these cases, our livelihood may depend on some harmless exaggeration. Besides, the other candidates are doing it too and no one is even here to call you out if you take full credit, right? Just point out the gains and omit the losses.
  • When everyone is competing for attention, showing off their beautiful lives, their beautiful wives, their cars, their foolproof formula for success or weight loss, how are you supposed to compete with that? How will you be noticed for your competing solution, or your humble life updates? What’s the harm in adding that Instagram filter? Where’s the crime in wanting to be admired for a moment? After all, isn’t that just what everyone is doing anyway? This, you think, is how you will keep up.
  • What about when the truth just hurts too much? After all of the years of struggle, the effort, the hardship, what if all you have is a story of mediocrity? Is it so bad to add a little extra icing on your cake? You’re so tired of faking it until you make it but maybe if you just faked a little harder, it would open the right doors.

If you see yourself in any of that, I told you, you’re not alone. We all engage in some level of BS from time-to-time.

All of these circumstances can be seen as a game where the other players (“your opponents”) are after the same result as you are. They want the client that you want. They want the job you want. They want the attention you want.

They are not here to cooperate with you. They are competing with you.

Some BS Theorem: Nash Equilibrium

The Nash Equilibrium is a Nobel prize winning theory of decision making in non-cooperative “games.” The simplest way to explain it is that the Nash Equilibrium is the point in a competitive game where both players have reached the point where neither has any incentive to change their strategy as both players perceive that there is nothing to be gained from altering their approach.

So, what does this have to do with BS?

We have reached the Nash Equilibrium because each player is aware that their competitive environment is likely to include an opponent who will embellish some aspect of their record or accomplishments and therefore understand that they are at a disadvantage by completely avoiding the use of BS. They are also likely aware that there is a point at which BS ceases to be an effective tool.

To play the game of life—especially business—completely devoid of BS, is to cede the victory to those who will present themselves in a more favorable light, even when that positioning includes some slight modifications from the complete truth. Simultaneously, leaning too heavily on BS risks potentially ruining any immediate gains or long term success by being perceived as untrustworthy. There’s some variance in the acceptable level of BS.

As a result, each player in the game of life is incentivized to adopt a strategy that includes some amount of BS. Where a person sits on that continuum has less to do with external factors and more to do with their internal capacity for dualism.

How Much BS Can One Take?

Dualism has several definitions but in this case, I’m referring to one’s ability to hold two mutually exclusive ideas simultaneously. Said differently, how capable is a person to believe two things that are opposed to one another at the same time.

A person’s capacity for BS, is directly related to their capacity to hold two ideas about themselves (e.g I am successful vs I am a failure, or I am confident in my abilities vs I am a fraud)

Therefore, the degree to which you are a bullshitter is simply a measure of the size of the chasm between what you say versus what you believe. Bullshit, is primarily an internal measure. The more you can say things that you do not believe, the greater your capacity for BS.


MVBS: Minimum Viable Bull Shit

If you seek to be more honest, and authentic, do not seek to grow into the words you say, but rather grow so that you can change the words you say.

There’s nothing wrong with occasionally boasting a bit more, or stretching the impact of your work, and you can do these things with little negative repercussions because it’s baked into the game…it is expected. Hone your ability to spot it, and reduce your reliance on it for your competitive advantage.

If you want to close the gap between what you say and what you believe is true, focus on your own growth to such a degree that you can confidently state your abilities, status, or accomplishments without exaggeration. Be direct, be forthright, be vulnerable, and open the lens wider to focus on telling a more complete story instead of Bullshit.

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